Electrode implants have allowed rats to cooperate and solve problems through brain communication.
Miguel Nicolelis, a Duke University neuroscientist, commandeered the study.
During the experiment, two rats received electrode brain implants. The implants targeted two areas of the brain: tactile sense and movement planning.
The animals were placed in separated cages with no methods of communication.
One rat, here called the ‘leader rat,’ was trained through repetition to recognize the width of a hole in the cage wall. The leader rat had to respond differently to a large or small hole. A correct response earned the leader rat a drink. Over time, leader rats were able to identify the correct width in 95% of trials.
Another rat, the ‘test rat,’ was put in a cage without any holes. The cage setup still had the mechanism that allowed the leader rat to record a response to hole size. So though the test rat couldn’t see a hole, the animal could see the two possible choices for a response. Scientists confirmed the general hypothesis that test rats would guess the correct button in 50% of trials.
Here’s where the experiment got interesting.
A leader rat and test rat received the same cage and reward setup. The researchers then took signals from the leader rat and used them to motivate the brain of the test rat. The only help the test rat received was input from the leader rat’s electrode signals.
The test rat’s performance improved by 60 to 70 percent.
The leader and test rat both had to identify the correct response in order to get a drink.
It appeared to Nicolelis and his team that, over time, the rats were recognizing the value of cooperating with the partner rat’s input.
Researchers decided to push the study even further. They used the Internet to link the brains of a test rat and leader rat on different continents. Brain activity was successfully transmitted in the rats between North Carolina and Brazil.
Study co-author Miguel Pais-Vieira noted that the connection was clear despite distance and vast assortments of potential interference. He claimed the study is the first step in creating a network of geographically separated animal minds.
Nicolelis called the animals’ mental connection ‘a computer that evolves [without] set instructions or an algorithm.’ In a 2012 book, he pondered whether animals collected through cognition could come to new revelations when they perceived an object in unison. The author and neuroscientist wondered if individual brains could be transcended by shared cognitive experiences.
More immediately, Nicolelis aims to apply the research to his current endeavors to link human minds with prosthetic technology. The scientist hopes neural networks can allow injured brains to engage with the sensory world anew. He plans to use brain implants to control skeletal prosthetics that could restore mobility to the paralyzed.
A neurotechnology ethicist at Oxford University noted that the experiments were vital contributions to human understanding of cognition. He claimed that communication and cooperation skills have allowed humans to retain their status as the dominant species on Earth.
As the ethicist notes, some might be reluctant to pursue telepathic technologies. ‘Most of the time I think we’d be very thankful not to be in someone else’s head,’ he said.
Nicolelis and peers may soon test the ethicist’s notion of absolute cognitive privacy.